Shakespeare's Foreign Worlds: National and Transnational Identities in the Elizabethan Age

September 24, 2009

A historian and a literary critic walk into a pub ... such formulaic jokes typically open with characters (eg, an Englishman, a Welshman and a Scotsman) united through some shared affiliation (ie, they are all British men).

As academics in the humanities, historians and literary critics have enough in common to qualify for the set-up. In most tellings, the eventual punchline of the joke reasserts provincial distinctions and reinforces enduring stereotypes (eg, that Englishmen whinge, Welshmen sing and Scotsmen are tight). Carole Levin, a historian, and John Watkins, a literary critic, open their innovative co-authored study by asserting their own scholarly biases. Indeed the phrase "foreign worlds" of the title refers as much to their experiment in cross-disciplinary scholarship as to the theatrical representations of difference they analyse. Focusing on three plays produced for Shakespeare's public theatre, Levin and Watkins trade fresh accounts of familiar material: the emergence of national identities in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Just as present-day pub talk might turn to conflict in the Middle East or to the rights of asylum seekers, recent scholarship on early modern nation-building has focused chiefly on "foreigners" supposed very far, or too near. Levin and Watkins train our eyes on territories scarcely across the English Channel and, writing side-by-side chapters on Henry VI, The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew, observe traces of England's interface with the Continent. A specialist in women's history, Levin examines Shakespeare's Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc), and Jessica, Shylock's daughter, as characters whose function as only-just outsiders helps limn the contours of English identity. Watkins tends to take more in view, tracing ideological contradictions in Henry VI to policy shifts favouring national interests over European dynastic alliances, and attributing Petruchio's "taming" of Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew to worries that English wives might get funny ideas from the latest smart Italian export, humanist education.

Using Shakespeare's drama "as a medium to reflect on the plasticity and permeability of the English nation", the co-authors showcase two markedly divergent approaches to a set of shared texts. There is some traversing of disciplinary boundaries. Where her chapters teem with regional case studies, Levin's copious parsing of one line by Joan in Henry VI cannot be described as anything other than close reading, the erstwhile bulwark of literary criticism. Likewise, Watkins' attention to currents in royal administration sometimes resembles more traditional historical scholarship, but generally prompts now familiar, and still vital, questions regarding the inter-relation between literary phenomena and extra-literary (aka "historical") events. A lively alternative to the vaunted monograph, and a more focused volume than the usual essay collection, this collaborative inquiry into boundary making and crossing is neither univocal nor thoroughly interdisciplinary.

I intend this as a compliment. For it is the juxtaposition of Watkins' broad-brush style to Levin's meticulous presentation that brings the possibilities and limits of the contemporary humanities boldly into view. This study courts the academic audience it deserves, yet it might also divert a tax and tuition-paying public fatigued by stories of academic territoriality and often led to mistake intellectual innovation and flexibility for moral laxity and relativism. In their concern to stress the collegiality of their exchange, Levin and Watkins miss opportunities to elaborate on their unmistakable intellectual differences, indeed to demonstrate more forcefully that to approach a problem from many different sides is not to end up the butt of the joke.

Instead, the disparate entries from two disciplinary "worlds" require the reader to step in and exercise critical discernment. In this respect, with English history the common ground, and Shakespeare a generous host to the discussion, Shakespeare's Foreign Worlds represents a serious and welcome entry to both academic and public discourse.

Shakespeare's Foreign Worlds: National and Transnational Identities in the Elizabethan Age.

By Carole Levin and John Watkins. Cornell University Press. 232pp, £24.95. ISBN 9780801447419. Published 26 March 2009

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